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What We Witnessed at a French Migrant Camp Allegedly Controlled by People Smugglers

VICE News traveled to northern France where we spoke to migrants about people smuggling networks and were threatened by a man with an apparent British accent in a camp in Teteghem.
August 7, 2015, 1:00pm
Photo de Frederick Paxton pour VICE News

The French ferry port of Calais has been in the news non-stop across Europe, as reports of desperate refugees and migrants attempting to get to England continue to inspire a mixture of anger and sympathy. On Tuesday, a Sudanese man was discovered and arrested inside the 31-mile-long Channel Tunnel, just a few miles from the UK.

Some 3,000 refugees and migrants are currently living in "the Jungle" camp, on the outskirts of Calais. The majority have fled conflict and persecution, and come from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Sudan. Many have wives, husbands, children, or parents already in the UK. Most speak some English, but little French.

However, while the main camp is attracting the most media attention, it's not the only stopping point for migrants that are trying to make the journey to England.

Related: Migrants Have Made 3,500 Attempts to Enter the Channel Tunnel Over Two Nights

On Wednesday, VICE News traveled to Teteghem, near Dunkirk, after hearing reports from Sky News journalists who said that a camp there may be controlled by people smugglers. The town is about 30 miles up the coast from Calais, a 45 minute drive.

We weren't able to stay at the camp. When we arrived there we were immediately approached by a man seemingly with a British accent, wearing what appeared to be gold Rolex watch. He told VICE News that he used to be a "big criminal in South London," but had now decided to make his home in the camp in Teteghem.

After speaking quickly and angrily about the terrible conditions endured by the migrants living with him, he then threatened to hang us from a nearby tree and break our cameras if we didn't leave the camp immediately. As we walked back towards our car he began calling for backup.

A group of migrants in a small camp in the town of Teteghem near Dunkirk, France Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

There were also several Vietnamese people in the camp who waved politely before walking to a tap to get water. We also spoke briefly to a Syrian family, who were living in what looked like a large shipping container. A young Syrian boy cycled around the camp, chatting happily to the man who threatened us.

Médecins du Monde volunteers, delivering provisions to the site, told VICE News that there were around 80 or 100 people living there, and that there is another camp nearby.

A group of Iranian migrants run for a bus in the town of Teteghem near Dunkirk, France. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Some miles from the camp, a group of Iranians sat on the grass near a Lidl grocery store, waiting for a bus. One — a friendly man who had traveled with his teenage son, leaving three other children behind them — told VICE News that he paid 7,000 pounds ($10,860)  for each of them to make the journey: "5,000 pounds from Iran to France, and 2,000 pounds from Paris to England." The pair said they "traveled in a big car all the way," and passed through Turkey.

Another group of migrants picked berries by the side of the road in Teteghem.

Migrants walk the road where they were picking berries on in the town of Teteghem near Dunkirk, France. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Back in Calais, 24-year-old Salem, whose name has been changed, stood in a field by the side of a motorway, waiting for the police to leave so he could make another likely futile attempt to get into a train station and sneak on board.

Salem left Syria with his brother after his father's employer, a former senior government official, was branded a traitor. Salem's family subsequently came under attack and his brother was briefly imprisoned.

Shivering inside an oversized padded jacket given to him earlier in the day by an NGO, he described his four days in Calais, and his attempts to get a smuggler to take him on the final leg of his journey.

Salem said that it's very easy to find smugglers in Calais. "Now if I go to the Jungle people will come at me and say 'where are you going?' Every group has a smuggler. Maybe two or three."

Related: Eurotunnel Wants France and Britain to Pay $10.5 Million to Cope With Migrant Crisis in Calais

Salem traveled from Syria with money his family gave him. His journey took him through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Germany, and the Netherlands. Smugglers and mafia members were a constant — he described being threatened, imprisoned, and extorted all along the way.

"I don't have a smuggler. They don't accept my money, I don't have money," he said. "They ask for a lot. I went to an Egyptian smuggler — they asked me for 2,500 pounds. I told them I only have 1,000 euros ($1,090)."

Salem said that currently there are three main ways to get into the UK. You can travel by train, you can wait for a traffic jam and get someone else to open and close the doors while you get in, and you can find someone who agrees to take you by car. "That's the smuggler way," Salem said.

"You put the money with a third party — usually someone in Britain," he continued. A friend of the migrant and a friend of the smuggler in Britain sit together while the attempt is made. Once the migrant has crossed the border, he'll message his friend immediately. "My friend will be sitting with his friend. When I say that I'm in he'll give him the money."

Migrants gather in the tree line near the entrance to the Euro Tunnel in Calais, France. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Despondent and desperate, Salem attempted to follow a smuggler on Monday night. The man pulled a gun on him. "From what I saw there is a smuggler and two guys to look out," he said.

More migrants in the camp told VICE News that 7,000 pounds is the going rate for a truck driver to allow a migrant to hide inside their vehicle during the crossing.

However, others told VICE News that they were certain there were no smugglers operative in Calais.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Follow Frederick Paxton on Twitter: @freddiepaxton